LOVE AND DOGS IN NEW YORK CITY: JONATHAN UNLEASHED

jonathan unleashed

Ready for a lighthearted romp through New York City and the vagaries of modern day romance?  Then take a look at Jonathan Unleashed, by Meg Rosoff, arriving soon at the Field Library.

The main character, Jonathan Trefoil, is a young man going through a hard time.  His boss is unhinged and driving him crazy, his apartment in New York City is just this side of illegal, and his relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart.  He thinks the absolute last thing his life needs is the addition of his brother’s two dogs, one a border collie and the other a cocker spaniel, to his already chaotic and confused life.

And yet — stop me if you’ve heard this before — the two dogs prove to be a real help to Jonathan in ways that surprise him.  They maneuver him on his daily walks and make sure he makes a certain number of visits to a very friendly, very attractive female veterinarian, to the point where Jonathan begins to think they know better than he does what he needs and how to get it.

People who love New York City, people who love dogs, people who can relate to being adrift and confused in young adulthood: this is the book for you.  Come on in and give it a try!

VINEGAR GIRL: ANNE TYLER UPDATES THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

vinegar girl cover

I have to start off by saying that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is not my favorite of his plays.  I had to read it in Freshman Honors English, many years ago, and found it sexist and offensive then, and it hasn’t really gotten better since (how DO you stage the scene where a “tamed” Kate lectures her sister about how important it is to be submissive and obedient without making the women in the audience want to throw things?).  Hogarth has started a series of modern authors rewriting classic Shakespearean plots (one of the others was Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a reworking of A Winter’s Tale; another was Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, a new version of The Merchant of Venice), and now we have Anne Tyler’s reworking of The Taming of the Shrew,  which is called Vinegar Girl, and which is available now at the Field Library.

It’s a little odd when a modern writer tries to rewrite someone else’s work: how much of what comes out is shaped and colored by the modern writer’s sensibilities, and how much needs to be a reflection of the original?  In the case of Anne Tyler, whose books are usually family dramas with odd characters all centered around Baltimore, Maryland, revisiting The Taming of the Shrew involves changing the ages of the characters and their relations (sort of) to each other, and setting the whole thing in modern day Baltimore (of course).

Our modern day Kate is a preschool teacher’s aide, 29 years old and a college dropout (well, not really a dropout, since she was asked to leave college after a verbal altercation with a professor). The kids love her for her outspoken and filter-free nature, but the parents of those kids, and her co-workers and bosses, are less enthused.  Her younger sister is pretty but ditzy, and her father is a brilliant scientist who’s on the verge of a breakthrough, except that his lab assistant, Pyotor, is about to be deported for overstaying his visa.  Kate’s father has what he thinks is a brilliant idea: he’ll keep Pyotor in the country legally by getting him to marry Kate!  It’s not as if anyone else is queuing up to marry her, after all, and this will be a big help to him in his work, which he believes is more important than her feelings.

So we don’t have the obnoxious plot from Shakespeare where the younger and more attractive daughter can’t get married until someone marries the older shrewish daughter Kate; we have instead a more modern story about people from different cultures trying to decide whether they’re willing to get married, in form or in reality, just to facilitate someone else’s work.  Kate is not so much a shrew as she is a smart woman who speaks her mind and doesn’t think about the consequences.  She’s also rather lovable and — fortunately for all concerned — she doesn’t need to be “tamed” by anyone in order to achieve the obligatory happy ending.

 

WATCH THE ROADS: THE SUICIDE MOTOR CLUB

As school lets out for summer vacation, people start planning trips, family trips or solo trips, getting away from it all for part of the summer.  So of course this is the PERFECT time to pick up a book about a bunch of psychopaths driving the American roads, killing and destroying and taking whoever they want.  

the suicide motor club

The Suicide Motor Club, by Christopher Buehlman, starts in classic horror story fashion, with a happy family in seemingly peaceful, happy surroundings. It’s 1967 and Judith Lamb is riding in a 1965 Ford Falcon with her husband, Robert, and her five year old son, Glendon, heading from New Mexico to Texas in the evening. Perhaps not everything is idyllic, but things are looking good for Judith, until the black Camaro pulls up alongside them, the driver and the passengers looking disturbing and strange, and one of them grabs hold of her son and pulls him out of the car. Of course Judith fights to keep Glendon with her, but the creatures in the other car manage to drag the child into the Camaro and drive away. When she and her husband tear off after the Camaro, another car, a red GTO, deliberately crashes into their car, sending it spinning into a terrible crash, which should have killed both the people in the car.  The driver of the GTO keeps on going, leaving the scene of the accident, certain there are no survivors.

But there is one. Judith manages to survive the horrific accident. She knows what she saw, even if it’s unbelievable to everyone around her, even if it’s all but unbelievable to her. The people in those two cars weren’t human. They killed her husband, they stole her son, and the only thing she wants in this world is revenge. It’s not going to be easy for her to find these creatures, let alone destroy them, but she is on a mission and we’re riding along with her.

A quick read, a dark and disturbing book that (if anyone’s doing the 2016 Reading Challenge) satisfies the category “Read a Horror Book,” The Suicide Motor Club is just the book to read on your vacation.  

TAKE A WALK ON THE ODD SIDE AT THE FIELD

Sometimes you just want something that’s a little out there, a little off the beaten track, a little quirky.  Perhaps it’s not every time, perhaps, but every now and then it’s fun to shake up your expectations and read something (as Monty Python would say) completely different.  Here are a few “completely different” and rather quirky new books on the shelves here at the Field Library for your enjoyment.

almost infamous cover

Who hasn’t wanted to be a supervillain once in a while?  If you’re the kind of person who’s always wondering how and why someone becomes a supervillain (the superheroes’ origin stories are usually pretty well known), then take a look at Almost Infamous, by Matt Carter.  The protagonist, 18 year old Aidan Salt, has the kind of abilities that could possibly make him a superhero, but he lacks the ambition and the drive, and has no desire to get involved with all the paperwork necessary for becoming a recognized superhero.  On the other hand, the lure of fame and fortune and women throwing themselves at him is tempting, so Aidan does the next best thing: he becomes a supervillain, Apex Strike, the first new supervillain in decades.  All the world’s superheroes, semi-retired for lack of someone to fight, take notice.  Some of them, of course, want to destroy him (that’s what superheroes are supposed to do, after all), but others, more canny or more cynical, want to hire him to be their own personal supervillain, so they’ll always have someone menacing to fight, keeping them relevant and in the public eye.  Naturally, Aidan is more than willing to enter into those kinds of arrangements, though it turns out there’s more going on in the world of capes and superpowers than he ever could have imagined.

the big sheep cover

Or if you’re interested in stranger future worlds, there’s always The Big Sheep, by Robert Kroese.  In 2039, when the book is set, Los Angeles is not what it is now.  A large section, the Disincorporated Zone (DZ) has been disowned by the authorities of the city, and is walled off as a separate, almost third world, country. In this strange zone, quirky private investigator Erasmus Keane and his more normal partner, Blake Fowler, are hired to find a very valuable genetically altered sheep which was stolen (apparently) from the Esper Corporation.  As they’re tracking down this sheep, they get an even more interesting job: Priya Mistry, a beautiful television star, believes someone is trying to kill her, and she needs them to find out who’s doing it.  She disappears and reappears with no memory of having hired them at all, and the two investigators begin to realize that these two seemingly disparate inquiries are related after all (of course — that’s almost always the case), and something is indeed rotten in Los Angeles and the DZ, the trail leading to the most powerful people in the city.  This book has been compared to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the basis for the movie Blade Runner) and Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! (which, by the way, if you haven’t read, you absolutely should because it’s brilliant), and that’s an excellent reason to immerse yourself in the weird world of The Big Sheep.

the nightmare stacks cover

Now, a book about bankers turned into vampires might sound too obvious, but nonetheless, the premise of The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross might make you curious enough to dive in. Mild-mannered protagonist Alex Schwartz accidentally stumbled on an algorithm that turned him and his fellow bankers into vampires (oops), and then in short order was recruited into the Laundry, a secret British agency that stands as humanity’s defense against the forces of darkness. He needs the Laundry for his existence, since he’s absolutely no good at predatory bloodsucking on his own, so when they tap him to investigate the possibility of turning a 1950’s bunker in his old home town of Leeds into the Laundry’s new headquarters, he has no choice about it, though he would rather be almost anywhere else. In addition to the work he’s doing for the Laundry, Alex is trying to hide his undead condition from his family still living in Leeds, not to mention having to let them know he’s left the lucrative world of banking for the less-lucrative world of the civil service (without telling them exactly what kind of civil service he’s involved with).  To his own surprise, a local Goth girl who’s a drama student seems to be attracted to him despite his lack of social skills and the difficulties presented by his vampiric state.  Of course, there’s a reason she’s interested in him, and Alex is about to find out that there are worse things than turning into a Civil Service vampire whose job it is to prevent multiple apocalypses.

BEING MORTAL: A FOLLOW UP

Thanks to everybody who came to the Field Notes Book Group’s discussion of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal this past Saturday.  We had a great discussion and all, I think, learned something.

For anyone who wants to follow up and learn more about Gawande and the matters covered in his book, tomorrow night (Tuesday, June 21) WNET (Channel 13 in the New York metropolitan area) will be focusing on the book on Frontline at 10:00 p.m.  To quote from the description online, “FRONTLINE teams up with writer and surgeon Atul Gawande to examine how doctors care for terminally ill patients. In conjunction with Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, the film explores the relationships between doctors and patients nearing the end of life, and shows how many doctors — including Gawande himself — struggle to talk honestly and openly with their dying patients.”

 

 

 

ALL IN THE FAMILIES: NEW SAGAS AT THE FIELD

I personally have always loved the Family Saga genre.  I grew up devouring R. F. Delderfield’s books and the books of Susan Howatch, and so I’m always on the lookout for new and different takes on the multi-generational saga, combining history with a bit of soap opera, and we are fortunate that we have two new, very different but very appealing entries in the genre this month at the Field Library.

BARKSKINS COVER

Annie Proulx needs little introduction; even people who aren’t up on literary fiction are familiar with Brokeback Mountain, the movie based on her novella of the same name. Her newest book, Barkskins, takes us to the early days of European settlement on the North American continent in the 17th century, with the story of two men, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, who travel from France to New France as indentured servants of a seigneur for three years in order to gain land of their own.  Faced with the strangeness and awesomeness of the great forests of the new world, the two men take different tacks. Rene marries a Native American healer and his descendants mix the heritage of old and new worlds; Charles builds his own logging company and makes a fortune.  Proulx follows the children and grandchildren of these two men, their rivals,and their allies, through the next three centuries, watching empires grow and fall, the environment change as a result of their efforts and the changes of the Industrial Age.  Like the best family sagas, Barkskins focuses on the details of individual people’s lives and struggles and in so doing, illuminates the bigger historical picture.

homegoing cover

Yaa Gyasi’s book, Homegoing, is also a book that follows two different families through the centuries, but she focuses on the African diaspora, starting with two half sisters in Ghana in the eighteenth century.  One marries an Englishman and becomes part of the upper class, while the other is sold into slavery and sent to the Americas. We follow both lines of the family, who are unknown to each other, and watch tribal wars and fights against colonialism in Africa and the horrors of slavery, the Civil War, and the Great Migration in America.  The African side of the story is less well known to American readers: the hows and whys of that end of the slave trade, and the damage done to the people left behind, those who were complicit in the kidnapping and selling of other human beings and those who suffered the losses of family and friends.  The complexity of the slave trade and the human costs to all concerned give a depth to the stories of the descendants of the two sisters at the beginning of the book, and give us a different perspective on family and history.

 

THRILLER TIME AT THE FIELD

Come in to the Field Library and dive into the dark and scary world of the newest thrillers.

marrow island cover.jpg

Marrow Island, by Alexis M. Smith, is a different kind of thriller, the creepy, slowly building suspense kind. Two decades ago, Lucie Creeley, the protagonist, fled Marrow Island with her mother in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake that catastrophically damaged the local refinery and the environment and killed her father.  She never wanted to return, but now a mysterious group calling itself the Marrow Colony has reclaimed the land, and one of Lucie’s oldest friends has been drawn into the group.  The changes to the environment are nearly miraculous, but Lucie’s journalist instincts tell her there’s more going on here than meets the eye, especially with the charismatic leader of the group, and such wondrous improvements to the land must come with a price to the people involved. As she investigates, Lucie begins to wonder what she’s endangering with her efforts and what the truth is really worth.

security cover.jpg

Imagine the perfect resort, where every possible luxury has been provided for those who are willing to pay for them, and where the security is state of the art, offering would-be patrons everything they could ask for.  In Security, by Gina Wohlsdorf, Manderley Resort (points to people who recognize the literary reference there), such a hotel is about to open within 24 hours, but there’s something wrong: one by one, the staff inside this perfectly safe, perfectly secure hotel, is being killed off.  Who’s the murderer, how did he or she get into this building, and what’s going on?  The author has been compared to Stephen King, Daphne du Maurier and Edgar Allen Poe, and this book is a page turner par excellence.

CROW GIRLS COVER.jpg

Leave it to the Scandinavians to come up with a truly gruesome thriller about a serial killer (why is it that writers from the countries with the best social services in the world come up with some of the most horrifying and dark mysteries?).  The Crow Girls, by Erik Axl Sund, starts with the discovery of the corpse of a gruesomely mutilated immigrant child.  The lead investigator, Detective Inspector Jeanette Kihlberg, runs into difficulties immediately in the form of prosecutors and city officials who are not interested in devoting a lot of resources to an unnamed immigrant, but when the bodies of two other mutilated children are found, it’s clear they’re dealing with a particularly depraved serial killer.  Jeanette consults a therapist, Sofia Zetterlund, for her expertise on psychopathic killers, and as the two of them delve deeper into the investigation, they find the murders are only the surface manifestation of an evil that runs much more deeply into the heart of Swedish society than they could have imagined.  If you’re a fan of Jo Nesbo (as I am), or Karin Fossum or Stieg Larsson, you should definitely give The Crow Girls a read.

 

WHAT DOES SHE SEE IN HIM? WHEN AN AUTHOR LOVES A CHARACTER TOO MUCH

the immortals cover

Recently I read a book I was really hoping to love.  The book is called The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky, it came out in February, and the description on the cover flap (and in the reviews) was really intriguing. Selena, a woman in modern day New York, stays off the radar, acting as a vigilante for women who have been wronged by men. She is not what she seems, though: she is actually an ancient Greek goddess “slumming” it as a human being in the aftermath of the twilight of the Greek gods and goddesses. In her former life, she was Artemis, the hunter, the virgin protector of the innocent, the goddess of the hunt (and she had a lot of other attributes which you find out in the course of the book).  Early in the book, however, she is called to the scene of the terrible and grotesque murder of a young woman who called upon her in her old name. It turns out to be the first in a series of murders patterned (loosely) on the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, and Selena/Artemis becomes more and more involved in trying to find out who’s behind these murders and why they’re being committed.  Along the way, she interacts with her twin, Apollo (now Paul, a rock star), and Hades and Proserpina, Dionysius and Hermes.  There’s a certain amount of fun in seeing how these ancient gods and goddesses have changed themselves to survive and stay mostly hidden in plain sight in the modern world, and the mystery Artemis is trying to solve is intriguing. Not to mention that Artemis isn’t the usual Greek goddess people choose as a character; she’s less well-known and less overexposed and more interesting as a result.

BUT.  But but but, she is not the only character and not even the only main character. There is a male protagonist, Theo, a classics professor who was the one-time lover of the first dead woman, and he joins with Artemis in trying to solve the mystery.  Half of the book is from his point of view and the other half is from hers.

He is a terrible character. He’s a college professor who’s loved by all his students but hated by the “establishment,” the evil administrators of the college and of his department. He is brilliant and always has the right answer, and he is so hot and such a wonderful person that of course Artemis (a goddess, remember, and one who was known for being chaste and not being interested in men, with the one exception of Orion) falls in love with him.  

Let’s see, what other tropes do we have here?  We have the righteous and brilliant outsider who tells the police what’s really going on, based on his expertise, and the police don’t listen to him and instead decide that he knows these things because he’s really the murderer, so they arrest him and harass him instead of going after the real bad guys, who he already identified for them.  Clearly Theo, for all his purported brilliance and knowledge of popular culture, has never read a police procedural mystery or seen a cop television show or movie, since he expects the police to take his wild theories seriously based on nothing more than his word.

We have the straight hero who’s so wonderful that even a woman who has no sexual interest in men (whether she’s gay or asexual doesn’t matter here) falls in love with him and is willing to change everything about herself to get it on with him. If you’re going to have a goddess fall in love with a mortal man, at least choose a goddess who has done that sort of thing before: Athena (who doesn’t show up in this book, surprisingly), or Aphrodite (ditto).

It’s a sadly common problem: the author really loves a character and gives him or her nothing but good characteristics.  When people oppose that character, they’re doing so for evil motives, often because that character is right and they know it.  When an author has one character say to another character, “You are the most brilliant man I know,” and the first character means it without irony or sarcasm, the author has crossed the line into character worship, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no way to get back to an interesting character from there.  The same thing happened with Spencer in the later books in that series by the late Robert Parker. When Spencer’s lady love turned to him and said something like “You are your own Holy Grail,” I just stopped reading the series.  Inspector Lynley, in Elizabeth George’s books, suffered from the same too perfect, too right to be real syndrome.

In the case of The Immortals, finally Theo was too much for me. I read to the end of the book (and there was the really obnoxious Disney thing where a character is killed and then brought back to life, which is another of my personal bugbears) to find out who was responsible (the author pulled a clever switch where you thought one character was the bad guy and discovered it was someone else entirely) and how the matter would be resolved, but the relationship between Theo and Selena left such a bad taste in my mouth that if there were a sequel to this book, I wouldn’t want to read it.

Books of advice for writers always tell writers to make sure a character is real and flawed, someone who’s not always right, someone who makes mistakes and suffers for them, someone who changes from the beginning of the book to the end.  As far as I’m concerned, if an author fails to follow that advice, that’s one author I’m going to avoid in the future.

A TERRIFIC MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: THE UNDERNEATH

the underneath cover

The first thing I thought when I finished reading The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt, which I read for the “Read a Middle Grade Book” task in the 2016 Reading Challenge, was that it was an absolutely wonderful book.

The second thing I thought was that I was so glad this book wasn’t around when my daughter was still young enough for me to read it to her.  I’m not sure I could have managed it — not because it’s not poetic and lovely and with language that would be a pleasure to read aloud and taste in your mouth (it is all those things), but because it is so heartbreaking and puts you through such an emotional wringer that we both would have been shaken by it (spoiler alert: there is a happy ending for some of the characters).  On the other hand, it wouldn’t be the first book I read to her where my voice broke at some of the more emotional parts, so I’m sure we would have survived.

Any story that starts with a pregnant calico cat being abandoned by her humans by the side of the road is signaling to you that this is not going to be an easy ride, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book. The calico cat finds a home soon enough, though it’s a spot under a ramshackle shack and her companion is Ranger, a damaged hound dog who’s chained to a post.  There is a lot of love in this book, between the calico cat (who doesn’t get a name) and Ranger, between her and her two kittens, Puck and Sabine, and between those kittens and Ranger, who is a father to them.  There is also a love story in the past, between a pair of shape shifters, Night Song and Hawk Man, and their daughter (who never gets a name either).

There are also some very scary characters, first and foremost among them, Gar Face, the man who lives in the shack, who shot Ranger and chained him to the cabin, and who is in pursuit of a giant alligator in the river nearby.  Gar Face is a horrible person, abused in his own childhood, who has no qualms about killing animals for pelts or just for the hell of it. While we see his background in one of the threads of the story, his past doesn’t excuse his nastiness and the danger he poses to the animal family in the present.

Another of the villains is a shape-shifting lamia (snake and woman), Grandmother Moccasin, who has been imprisoned in a clay jar for a thousand years (and we learn how and why that happened) under the roots of one of the trees in this bayou, waiting for her escape and to get revenge, but on whom?

The three stories, that of Gar Face as a young man, that of Grandmother Moccasin and Night Song and Hawk Man a thousand years ago, and that of Ranger and the cats in the present, weave in and out of each other and come together at the end in a very satisfying way.  I’m not going to spoil the book by giving away plot points, though I will warn you there’s death here and not only of characters you don’t like (if you’re reading this to a child, this is definitely something to keep in mind).  It’s suspenseful and moving, and beautifully written, and something I probably wouldn’t have read if it weren’t for the category in the 2016 Reading Challenge, so once again I have been enriched by the challenge, and if you’re looking for a middle grade novel for that or for any other reason, you could hardly do better than The Underneath.

 

THE FANTASTIC WORLDS OF PAST AND PRESENT AT THE FIELD

When you say “fantasy” to many people, they think of high fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, but the world of fantasy is much broader than that (though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with well-written high fantasy!), covering everything from fairy tale-like stories to magical takes on worlds we thinks we know well. Come check out some of the new fantasy at the Field Library and see for yourself.

a study in sable cover.jpg

I am as much a sucker for Sherlock Holmes pastiches as anyone, and am a big fan of author Mercedes Lackey, so I’m delighted to announce that she’s come out with a book called A Study in Sable, which takes the Sherlock Holmes canon into new realms, giving us a new look at some familiar characters and introducing us to new characters. In an alternate Great Britain, Nan Killian is a psychic, and Sarah Lyon-White is a medium, and they are working for the Wizard of London.  He sends them on an important case to work with the genius at 221 Baker Street, but not the one at 221B Baker Street (known to all Conan Doyle fans as the home of Sherlock Holmes), but the less famous couple right next door at 221C Baker Street, John Watson and his wife, Mary, who are elemental masters of water and air in their own right, and who take on those supernatural cases Holmes disdains.  This case brings them into a confrontation with a deadly entity that nearly killed Nan and Sarah when they were children, and, as if that weren’t enough, a famous diva hires Sarah to help her fight off a multitude of spirits which are threatening her. The prima donna’s case turns out to be much more dangerous and far-reaching than anyone anticipated, and it will take all the skills of the famous couple and the two women to come out alive.

a green and ancient light

In another alternate reality, a war very much like our World War II is being fought in A Green and Ancient Light, by Frederic C. Durbin, and in that version of England, a nine year old boy whose father has been conscripted into the armed forces is sent away to stay with his grandmother he hardly knows.  Her home, like the homes of all grandmothers in fairy tales, is at the edge of a mysterious forest. This one contains strange monstrous statues which may hold the key to the entrance to Fairy, and the local people are, of course, reluctant to go near the woods.  Problems arise when an enemy plane is shot down and lands in the woods.  The boy and his grandmother must then decide what to do with the man, whether to hide him or turn him over to the authorities, but when you’re dealing with a magical place, things are never quite so simple. The book has been compared to Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (a book I totally love), and to the movies of Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak), so if you love a timeless read with lovely writing and moving characters, this is the book to sink into.

roses and rot cover

For something a little darker, try Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard. We start, in classic fairy tale style, with two sisters living under the tyranny of a horrible mother (yes, in fairy tales it’s usually a horrible stepmother, but Imogen, our protagonist, can’t imagine how any awful stepmother could be worse than her biological mother), controlling and abusive.  Imogen managed to escape her mother by going to a boarding school, but that meant leaving her sister, Marin, behind to suffer whatever their mother wanted to inflict on her.  Years later, both Marin and Imogen end up together at a very special post-graduate arts program where they can reconnect, where Imogen can develop her skills as a writer and Marin as a dancer.  They can even share a room together, which is almost like getting a chance to relive their childhood without the terrors of their mother. It’s just like a fairy tale, except that fairy tales have deep dark spots, and this one is no exception. Ultimately it’s about sisterhood and magic and sacrifice, and all good things come with a price.